Ep. 62: Modernizing Customer Experiences in Fitness with Austin Cohen
In each episode of The Playbook presented by FanFood, host Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment and hospitality. We invite industry veterans to talk about how customer expectation have changed in today’s world, and how businesses need to change accordingly for greater operational efficiency and better guest experience.
Austin Cohen, Founder & CEO at FlexIt, joins Rob Cressy to talk about modernizing the customer experience in the fitness industry. Why is convenience and personalization so important to the modern consumer and what can you do to add more of it? How can your brand stand out in a sea of sameness? Should companies continue to use Zoom to engage their customers and if so how? How can you empower people so they can control their full experience? To see how your restaurant, establishment, or venue can benefit from FanFood’s platform please get in touch here.
Listen to the Gameday Playbook on:
Rob Cressy: (00:08) Welcome to The Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are modernizing today’s customer experience through technology in sports, entertainment, and hospitality. I’m your host, Rob Cressy. And joining me today is Austin Cohen, founder, and CEO at FlexIt. Austin, great to have you on the show. Austin Cohen: (00:29) Great to be here. Thanks for having us, Rob. Rob Cressy: (00:32) Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do? Austin Cohen: (00:35) Of course, I’m Austin Cohen. New Yorker the whole way so we’re at odds here, Rob, on our sports teams. I’m the founder and CEO of FlexIt. FlexIt is the largest paper use network of gyms across the country. So, our users can access any of the gyms that are on our platform and they pay by the minute for their time in those facilities. No tour required, no paperwork required. You walk into one of the facilities, hover your phone over our tech at the front desk and you get to access all the amenities and use everything that facilities have to offer. It’s the most flexible, easiest, most comfortable way to try gyms across the country. We also power the ability to work out from home with live personal trainers one-on-one from the brands that people love. From your Blink Fitness, all the way to your solid course on the high end. So, we power the full spectrum of fitness access in a very flexible consumer modern friendly way. Rob Cressy: (01:33) Cool. So, there are a few things that really interested me about what you do, customer experience and technology. And let’s start with the customer experience angle because you actually mentioned something that I didn’t even think about at the beginning when you said, boom, no paperwork, any of this stuff. When you sign up for a gym, what is the customer experience traditionally like? It is not good. It takes time. It can be intimidating and a waste time. There’s a whole bunch of paperwork. There’s a whole bunch of hidden fees. To me, it’s very much the buying a car except you’re signing up for a gym. And it is not a smooth experience. Like I’ve never gone to a gym and been like, man, they made that so easy on me and said you get passed off there’s these giant papers and all of this. And I loved how you just said, boom, we’re not having to do any of that stuff because when I look at customer experience and certainly the fitness industry is one in which there had to be massive innovation over the last six months by design to keep afloat. So, can you talk about just sort of the mindset of something as simple as that, because I believe it is so important? Austin Cohen: (2:49) Yeah. And you’re not alone in the sentiments you share. And for us, everything’s about the experience for our consumers and also for the partners, our gym partners, all the operators throughout the country. So if you take a few steps back, what we saw in consumer verticals was that millennials, gen Z is they could get everything at their fingertips, right? Where they wanted when they wanted any time. In the fitness space that wasn’t actually possible until we launched a couple of years back. And our whole premise was that we wanted consumers to be able to access in the way that they were accessing other components in their life. Your food, your transportation, your hospitality, it was very quick and easy. You could jump in a car, you could get Uber, you could go stay anywhere. You could book a hotel last minute, but with the fitness industry that wasn’t quite possible. And so for us, we wanted to create a very comfortable non-intimidating way for people to be able to work out. Everyone has different workout goals. The way that you work out, Rob is going to be very different than any other number of people work out and everyone should feel comfortable working out. It’s important for everyone to do so. It’s healthy and it can be very intimidating going to the gym can be intimidating even if you’re fit. So, for us before everything, the consumer’s experience and the gym operators’ experience was foremost. We really set out to create a perfect maximally efficient experience for both. So, for consumers, it’s frictionless and non-intimidating. If you’re going to a gym, no one bothers you. You walk in, you don’t sign a paper waiver. You hover your phone using our mobile app, which is very similar to the modern millennials app, as an Uber. And it checks you in instantaneously. You’d almost don’t even have to stop your feet. You walk in, you hover over the phone and you go. It’s perfectly seamless. For the operators, it helps them to cater to these changes in millennial trends that we’ve seen over the last five, seven years. With our end in-home product, it’s the same thing. You can use any device you want. You can use our mobile app, an app on an iPad, or you can log in on the web and you can take the session on a patch of grass or in a full gym with equipment.
Rob Cressy: (04:55) There’s one word that stands out to me when hearing what you’re talking about, and its convenience. So much of our lives now are about convenience and even more so now when convenience has been taken away from us. So, I live in the city of Chicago and I live a unique life. I didn’t have a car for about five years. I’ve always rented. I’m someone who lives in the sharing economy. Uber, Train, Spotify, I love cloud-based stuff. I don’t need ownership when I can have anything because I like the flexibility and freedom. And I like it when things are convenient for me because one, it gives me a new opportunity to try new things. So often I think one of the biggest challenges companies have is the old way of doing things that industry may do or a company may do and the way that you need to innovate. And I’m someone who’s very forward-thinking as is FanFood doing this podcast. But guess what? Not everybody is forward thinking like this. And the last six months have really given an opportunity for those of us who are forward thinking to innovate and deliver better customer experience. And those who don’t, well you might not feel at this exact moment, it is going to catch up to you. I promise you on that. Austin Cohen: (06:19) Yeah. I mean, your sentiments are hitting right at home with much of what we believe in and what we’re building here that we’ve worked on over the last few years and that we’re continuing to drive forward for the modern consumer. So, FlexIt definitely belongs on your phone, Rob. And over the last few months so much has changed. We as a company feel fortunate that despite the closure of gyms, our in gym product at the beginning of COVID we’ve had the last few months to accelerate and focus on our virtual product. And what we’ve seen over the last few months is that people have realized that they can still get a really good workout at home. We have paired brands across the country and their trainers are working out live one-on-one with our consumers and consumers are working out for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes or 60 minutes doing virtual personal training which is not something that people were previously accustomed to doing. We have people who have never previously personally trained who were doing this and they’ve found it amazing. It’s changed their lives up. And people have realized that with just a simple click of a button, the way that you were describing your use of various products in Chicago, people can book a session, commit to it, hop out of their desk while they’re working from home, and get a workout in whether they have full gym equipment at home or just their body weight. They can get back to the desk and stay super fit. And to your point, that’s maximum convenience right there, right? It’s in your palm. You control the entirety of the experience, you’re controlling your spend and you’re doing it on your terms. And we really want to empower people. We want people to really be able to control their full experience and to make things work for them. I think a few years ago there was the notion of people had to fit fitness into their lives. And over the last few months, we’ve really realized as a country here that people can make fitness work with their lives and not structure their lives around their fitness. And for us, that’s also at the forefront of every decision that we’re making is how can we empower that consumer? Rob Cressy: (08:30) And I feel like a new vertical has been created with the at-home fitness market. And while it has always existed in some capacity where you’d always see where someone has a treadmill or a stair stepper or something like this, all of a sudden the pandemic said, all of a sudden, we now have to work out at home if we’re going to do it. And previously we didn’t think that way. You’re like, Oh, I need to leave my house to go get some exercise. And now what may have been seen as a huge roadblock for the industry, Oh my God, what are we going to do now that everybody can’t come into gyms? You say, wait a second. This is a forced digital innovation. If I’m talking to a company and digital innovation comes up, boom, I am all in. That’s what you need to be doing. This may have accelerated the growth of the entire industry by five, 10, 20 years because there’s the bell curve of early adopters and how long it takes something to get adopted. And I just love the opportunities for the at-home market. So, now let’s talk about the tech side a little bit more about this because when I look at at-home fitness a lot of it is very tech-enabled where you’re seeing the way that Peloton or Mirror or any variety of different fitness apps now can say, we can make it a lot easier for you to get a good workout, to have a personalized trainer, to be able to see someone in the same way that you or I would speak to someone on zoom. Like you’re doing your regular world. Can you talk a little bit more about that side of things? Because I don’t think traditionally people would think fitness plus tech, but guess what? Here we are. Austin Cohen: (10:17) A hundred percent. And even the traditional brick and mortar gyms have learned and realized this. They believe that digital is going to be playing a bigger part in their member’s offerings, moving forward. Many forward-thinking gym operators such as Choose Fitness, have launched digital offerings. So, you can now be a member of Choose’s virtual offering anywhere in the country regardless of whether you were previously a member of chews and had stepped foot into one of their facilities. So, the brick and mortar guys, they’re realizing that they can touch people all over the country, even people outside of the country. Right now we’re virtually personal training people all over the world. We have people in Europe and people even farther and beyond that, we’re training. We’re training people in every time zone here. And I think it’s like you said, it’s about the acceleration. So, of course, tech over the last few years has pushed the envelope. The gym industry may have lagged a bit in terms of being tech-forward, but this has helped consumers to definitely get there. And the industry’s caught up with so many other verticals. The thing about the virtual fitness space now is that there’s so much. So, there’s a bit of dilution in content and what’s out there. We predominantly see three buckets. So, we see the hardware in their home, your Pelotons, your Mirrors. There are devices that people can purchase. They can use those devices to power access to fitness. Some of those devices are provisioning content that gets paired with those devices. Some of the devices take up a lot of space. It’s been difficult for people to get some of them. They’ve been on backorder throughout this. We’ve seen a lot of new hardware companies come out of the woodworks over the last few months. Secondarily, we’ve seen a lot of live streams. Especially early on in COVID that live stream was predominantly free. The beginning of COVID, if you remember Rob back March, April, the whole Instagram feed, brands, gyms, influencers, it was live stream workouts, right? There was so much, and it was so free. It was so easy to get. I can add to that the fact that people have been training with YouTube videos now for a while, right? There’s just so much free content out there. So, the second concept on the heels of the live stream is prerecorded on-demand content. So, you don’t have to watch it live, but you can follow along through similar content. And that content has been previously recorded. Maybe it was in a studio, maybe it wasn’t. You can use products like active, where you can listen to audio recordings and they can guide you through your workout. So, those are the three primary buckets that we’ve seen, and there’s been a lot of growth across each of those. The dilution in free has subsided over the last few months, but there’s still definitely a lot. We believe that we’ll see that continue to subside as gyms start to come back and they have. Despite some closures and reopenings and some states have had second closures. The niche that we found is, live. So, with prerecorded content and live stream workouts and even most of the hardware, you’re not interacting with someone on the other side of the screen. Everyone’s accustomed to zooming, right? We’re on Zoom now. People are spending all day every day on Zoom. And what we’ve tried to do is take an individual outside of the home during a time when we are severely distanced from others and bring them into the home with you to the extent possible. And we’re doing that for the gyms. Our platform is in partnership with gyms across the country. So, we take the brick and mortar. We take a trainer from Blink. My guy, Chris Pavan from Blink is training people all over the country and all over the world now, right? We’ve extended Blinks reach. And so we’ve really tried to take people and create a differentiated experience. One that’s very personalized. I think that’s another important buzzword, a bit overplayed, but the level of personalization in the fitness space helps to cut through some of the dilution and content and the optionality that’s available to consumers today. And for us, it’s about making that maximumly comfortable non-intimidating experience. It’s highly personalized with another human. So, we’re helping to create and maintain those social relationships. Rob Cressy: (14:32) I think you talked about a lot of things that interest me. So, you said creating a differentiated experience. I believe that is something the fitness industry does a terrible job. Why? Because the gym I go to is a transaction. Why? Because it’s right down the street from where I live now. I don’t have a lot of options. And I even look at their social or a lack thereof. And I would put the fitness industry social in the same way that I would put the bar and restaurant industry social. They do the same things. They are not community focused. We want to say we’re social except for the fact that everything I see as a promotion for a bucket of Bud Light or $99 personal training sessions. And when I’m rolling on my Instagram feed and looking at NFL week one highlight and puppy videos and people on vacation. And then it’s like, Oh, $99 personal training that I’m seeing for the 30th time. To me, there’s no differentiation right there. And it’s a huge missed opportunity because what I would be doing right now if I was a gym and I was looking to market, I would make it all about my community. All about the members. User-generated content would be such a heavy bucket and not just the heavy fitness people. I think that’s another thing that a lot of gyms can run into an issue with is their marketing is so tailored to looking like Ronnie Coleman or a fitness teacher where you’re like, I can’t really relate to that person because they’re so super jacked. There needs to be almost a bucket. Is there a place for that person in your marketing? 100%. But I think you’re even seeing this on Peloton where they’re so community-driven in everything that they do and certainly in their marketing where they have normal looking people in their marketing on their bike. And I’m like, wait a second. That’s a good connection point because not everybody looks like a fitness model right there. So, for me, I think that’s a huge opportunity for differentiation. What do you think? Austin Cohen: (16:34) Well, I’m with you there. And even, you know, you go to a gym, you take a class, you may not be talking to people in the class. Boutique Fitness is a bit more social than the traditional brick and mortar spots. Everyone has their headphones on. Look, I’m in the gym at 6:00 in the morning, I don’t really want to be talking to anyone either. For us, It’s that one on one relationship with the trainer. And we have people who use multiple trainers. We have people who use the same trainer and over and over again, but that relationship develops. If you’re training with the same person every day, you become friends with that person. You build real rapport or relationship with that person. That’s a meaningful connection. That’s someone that you begin to be able to rely on that holds you accountable. Whether you’re someone who’s been training really hard and powerlifting for years, or you’re someone who’s just getting into it and now, and that’s a comfortable experience. So, for us, we’re really trying to help maintain a certain level of emphasis on the social. It’s really important, especially because we really try to cater to the tech trends of millennials and gen Zers. We also are able to do the same for people who are in older demographics. And I think more than ever now that it’s important for the gym industry as a whole to be focusing on the social component like you said. Because people have been so deprived of the social opportunity for the last few months, right? People were really starving for it. We did an event this past weekend outside, socially distanced. It was our first fitness event since pre-COVID. Pre COVID we do lots and lots of events and people just jumped right back. They were pumped about it. And so I’m with you. And it’s something that the operators are working on. And a lot of the operators really do a good job at fostering community. And I think their communities have stayed strong and maybe even a stronger post COVID. And I think a lot of the very forward and innovating partners, as I mentioned before, Choose and EOS fitness, they’ve done such a great job of this and Blink. We’re here to just help them continue to build their communities. We’re here building our community and the trainers from these brands are a key part of that. And the social ties and connections and stories that come out of the relationships with the trainers and clients on our virtual platform have been so rewarding for us and get largely at the point that you were trying to make and emphasize. I personally have that relationship with a lot of our trainers. I train with them. So, got to use the product that we’re selling here. So, I’m with you totally.
Rob Cressy: (19:09) And I want to make sure to emphasize something. This is not just about the fitness industry is having an emphasis on community and social in differentiating your brand, and user-generated content. This is something that it applies to fitness, but I believe it applies to everybody else’s business. And I also want to circle back on what you mentioned about live streaming and Zoom because the way that I see it is shiny object syndrome. Everyone goes, Oh my God, we need to jump on live streaming. Here’s our opportunity. Everybody else is doing it. Let’s do it for a month. Oh my God, this is great. And then they knew never do it again. So, if we’re going to look on our Instagram feeds right now, what are we not going to see a lot of? Live streaming. If you are a forward-thinking brand looking to differentiate yourself, what would I do? I would be doubling down on live streaming because if it works for a one month period, why would we not continue to do it? Yeah but Robb, things are different and things are opening up. Remember we’ve started at the beginning by saying we wanted to emphasize digital because that’s what forward-thinking companies do. And I think about one of my friends who live in San Francisco who owns a yoga studio and she would send screenshots and her IG stories of the virtual Zooms that they were doing. And I was super proud and happy for her and they’re continuing to do them. And I think the yoga industry is one that does a great job of community. But they’re continuing to go down this route because that model may end up being the most sustainable model for all of them. So, can you talk about your mindset when it comes to live streaming and Zoom? Because once again, I believe this applies not just fitness, but to everyone else. And for me, I am all in on video, live streaming, Zoom, all of that stuff. Austin Cohen: (21:11) Yeah. Look, it’s not going away. I agree with you that if people were bullish on it early on in COVID that there may be a missed opportunity. Now, people will pull back and to deemphasize it as a brand potentially not taking a shot that they could hit, right? I do think that people are tired like I said before. There’s a lot of dilution and it became very difficult. There was fatigue for consumers to decide between what live streams to take. And the live streams became somewhat antisocial after doing so for so long. But I’m with you. The fact that there’s that all of the live streams, most of the live stream has subsided brings opportunity. And I know the brands are still pushing it. We did a really cool series with Athleta, the apparel brand where we hosted a series of live streams with them and solid core throughout the summer, right? A couple of months after the peak of live streams had subsided. And so I agree with you there. I think that the important thing to know here is that digital is going to be playing a larger role than before. People talk about are things going to exactly go back to the way they were. It’s less so of that type of mindset and more so that digital is just gonna stick. But people will resume habits that they had pre-COVID. So, with fitness people will still go to the gym. They’re going to still go to the gym frequently, but they’re also going to supplement what they’re doing with new digital optionality. If you used to go to the gym seven days a week, and you’re a really busy, hardworking guy, you might want to save an hour in the morning commuting back and forth, showering and you might get that workout at home a couple of days a week. So, we’re just, we’re going to see things change, but it’s more of an integrative approach. And I agree that it’s not just about fitness. I mean, we’re in the business of fitness here. And we’re spending time talking about that. But like you said before with restaurants, the social component is something that a lot of restaurants have focused on throughout this, it’s creating opportunity. Platforms exist out there now similar to our virtual personal training platform that enabled people to pair with restaurants and learn how to cook with what the restaurants serve and deliver in their homes. And so it’s about all consumer verticals. It’s not just about what we’re doing, but we’re trying to help people take advantage of the times and stay healthy and fit in the industry that we’re focused on. Rob Cressy: (23:35) You know what I love when I hear the dilution because everybody’s doing it. It is well, how in the world do you stand out? Therein lies the beauty of all of this? Because the majority of companies out there will all do the same thing, but that is why it is so important to build a community and relationships on a one on one level. Because I can tell you if I love a brand, I don’t give a crap if seven other brands are live streaming because I am going to be on there. And I always like to say, you need to give people a reason to want to look forward to hearing back from you again. It’s not just, we’re on it is, I want to hear what FlexIt’s got going on right now. Because every time I hear from them, they deliver. And so often it’s easy to just throw this to the wayside because anyone can do it, let’s have an intern do it. You know what, social is not that important. But if you were the company who says, let’s continue to double down on our community, let’s double down. All of a sudden you’re going to go, boom, I know Austin is on today. I want to jump on this live stream. And it is that personalization. Like you talked about at the beginning, if you were to add personalization plus live stream, now all of a sudden I’m not going just cause you’re live streaming. I’m going because I want to see Austin. Austin Cohen: (24:58) Exactly. And the problem with the live streams is that you don’t get that personalization yet. You’re not able to say hey, Rob. I can see you. And you can ask me, am I doing this right? And that’s what we’re trying to focus on. And if there was one key thing that from my experience I’d want to share with other industry leaders, it’s that don’t jump on the bandwagon at the beginning. Everyone, as you said, started doing the same things early on. We were slower to respond. We talk a couple of weeks when the live streams were going nuts. We weren’t jumping on that train. We were observing what was going on in the industry. And our response was most options don’t enable you to see and interact with the other person on the other side of the screen. And so for us, we accelerated the opportunity to feel like Rob, you and I are in the same room right now and I’m sitting directly across from you. And so, to your point, I believe in differentiation and personalization and I believe in making quick decisions, smart decisions. And I think the real leaders were able to see opportunities and not just jump on the train and do what everyone else was doing Rob Cressy: (26:09) Here is the simplest way to add personalization. And we’re going to end with this, say someone’s name. And I love what you just said there because if we’re on an Instagram Live, all of a sudden we’re all working out and the trainers just sort of doing their thing and you’re doing yours, but there’s still a gap in between there. But if we were all on a Zoom and at the beginning we started and, Austin you’re like, Hey, Rob from Chicago, great to have you here, Rob. How are you doing today? Doing amazing. Cool, Jenny over here from Seattle. People love to hear their name and lights. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s why user-generated content is so important because so few brands will personalize the experience because you can even think to yourself, how many brands have called you by name? Holy smokes. Here’s the opportunity to century. Just find out the name of the people that are going to be working out with you and be like, quick roll call, Rob, Jenny, Sarah Mark, Austin, boom. What’s up, guys? Let’s do this. All of a sudden, you’re gonna be like, I like them. They’d call me by name. Just like Cheers says, where everybody knows your name. Austin Cohen: (27:21) I’m with you, Rob. And I think I’ve probably said your name 5, 10 times throughout this. I hope you’re feeling the love there. We believe in user-generated content so strongly and letting our users understand that we’re here for them and we know them. Every single person who virtually personal trains with us are encouraged to send us their sweaty selfie. And we hear those and that’s a big thing in the fitness industry. And it should be in all consumer verticals. Like you said, that the brand affiliation is key. And people, especially throughout covert have wanted to know that the brands that they rely on in a normal world are still there for them. And so every day we think about that and I’ve worked here for that. Rob Cressy: (28:05) Austin really enjoyed jamming with you. Where can everybody connect with you? Austin Cohen: (28:10) You can reach out to us at info@FlexIt.Fit. And you can also visit us on the web at FlexIt.Fit for our virtual personal training platform. It’s FlexIt.Fit/virtualPT. Rob Cressy: (28:31) And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. And here’s what I’m curious about. Have you done at home fitness in the last six months? Was this only because of COVID or were you doing this previously? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodondemand. On Instagram @FanFoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms @RobCressy.